Mesquite is more than a smoky barbecue flavor or the “Rodeo Capital of Texas.” This North Texas city harbors a rich history that establishes it as an emblem of Texas values. From its humble beginnings as a train depot to being one of the quickest growing cities of the midcentury, Mesquite offers more than it may seem.
Before our modern-day city charter borders, Mesquite was a blanket Native American territory called “no man’s land” where rival tribes would convene to hold trade fairs. In what would later become suburban development, the Caddo and Tawakoni were two of many tribes who would trade items hold friendly tournaments where young men competed in foot races or riding skill games as a means of celebration. These trading fairs were practiced until the 1790s and represent North Texas’ rich history before European settlement.
According to A Stake in the Prairie, Mesquite, Texas, the town began to take shape in the 1840s when a group of men formed the Mesquite league where they held certificates or bought land in a close vicinity that would eventually resemble a settlement. There were 18 land scripts total by 1848 and early settlers, such as the Bennett family, moved to the area and created the first semblance of a community by establishing its own school that ran until 1896.
The late 19th century brought an onslaught of activity as railroad tracks were being built through Dallas. Mesquite benefited from this development as the Texas and Pacific Railroad Company “established its western route to Dallas, [then] built a depot and officially organized the township of Mesquite in 1873."
Although the railroad opened the door for prosperity and trade in Mesquite, it also became the target of a robbery from Sam Bass. Bass was a notorious outlaw who targeted a Texas and Pacific passenger train at Mesquite on April 10, 1878. Unfortunately for the criminals, they found only $160 but could’ve potentially stolen $30,000 that was hidden in a potbellied stove. Bass died a few months later after an altercation with the Texas Rangers, ending his crime spree.
Fourteen years after the development of the township by Texas and Pacific Railroad Company, Mesquite was officially incorporated as reported by The Dallas Morning News on Dec. 4, 1887. This set off the chain of what would become the Mesquite recognized today.
The Mesquite Rodeo wasn’t always drawing large crowds in an arena with 100,000 square feet of space. The rodeo had more humble beginnings when it first launched in 1946 by Charlie McNally. Mesquite wasn’t the only city running its own rodeo, but when their neighboring Pleasant Mound Rodeo closed in 1950 after being annexed by Dallas, it allowed the Mesquite Rodeo to gain greater popularity.
A turning point of the sport came in 1957 when associates along with famous rodeo performers Neal Gay and Jim Shoulders purchased the Mesquite Rodeo from Charlie McNally. Shoulders spoke to The Dallas Morning News on Nov. 20, 1957, about the future of the rodeo where they planned "to build a new and modern rodeo plant on a new location on the 18 acres.”
The Mesquite Rodeo enjoyed steady growth over the next two decades and boomed during the 1980s. This is when the Mesquite Rodeo began broadcasting its shows on ESPN, increasing the exposure that contributed to its surge in popularity.
In 1999, Tom Hicks, former owner of the Texas Rangers and Dallas Stars, bought the Mesquite Rodeo from Gay to add to his large entertainment portfolio. A decade later, Hicks sold the rodeo to Camelot Sports and Entertainment for an undisclosed sum. The Mesquite Rodeo continues to operate in its renovated arena and will open again later this year on June 6.
Mesquite Fair and World of Animals
The Mesquite fair launched in 1922 and became an annual staple until 1959. The News praised the Mesquite fair on Sep. 23, 1922, and claimed that “[it] outranks in many ways numerous county fairs that have been held in Texas recently.” The fair not only exhibited livestock, but also served as a homecoming for former Mesquite residents who returned during the inaugural event.
Mesquite residents would also use the fair as an opportunity to commemorate their past, such as the re-enactment of the Sam Bass train robbery of 1878. However, this re-enactment contained personal ties as “pioneer citizens of Mesquite [portrayed] characters with whom some of them were personally acquainted,” according to The News in 1936.
Although the Mesquite Fair came to a close in 1959, as it was later merged to the Dallas County Fair, another family attraction sprung up during the 1970s. The World of Animals was a drive-through safari that opened in 1970 that included a baboon house, lion cubs, and dozens more animals. This family attraction was short-lived and closed for undisclosed reasons a few years after opening.
Shopping mall revolution
It’s hard to beat the Texas heat during the summer, but Mesquite acted as a trend-setter in commercial retail when it opened Big Town mall in 1959. It was the first enclosed, air-conditioned mall in Texas with 600,000 square feet of retail. A ceremony was planned for Big Town where The News described the mall as a “futuristic ‘City of Shops’” on Feb. 26, 1959.
Unfortunately, Big Town Malls, an early vanguard of air-conditioned malls, closed in 2001 and was demolished in 2006.
Over a decade later, Town East Mall opened in 1971 where it claimed the titled as, “the first multi-level, air-conditioned regional shopping center in the Dallas-Tarrant County area.” Yet, not everyone was enchanted by Town East’s opening. Jim Stephenson wrote in The News that he was concerned about the safety of the mall due to its “treacherously slick” floors.
Within the past fifteen years, Town East has attempted to fend off the dying mall trend that struck Collin Creek Mall. New stores are still opening in Town East and the city of Mesquite approved a plan to construct a new $650,000 marquee sign to attract shoppers in 2013. It is an effort to increase foot traffic since its last renovation in 2005 “to invest money to help the mall turn things around.” As of now, Town East continues to operate as “one of the largest regional malls in the eastern Dallas area.” With over 200 stores, including major name department stores such as Macy’s or Dillard’s, Town East’s current status remains safe with these active efforts.
The Mesquite Independent School District (MISD) was established in 1901 and one of their first acts was to approve the construction of a school campus. This became a reality the following year with the opening of a two-story building on six acres of land that is now Mesquite High School.
During the 1930s Mesquite was struck with basketball fever and heralded a successful girl’s basketball team dubbed the “Mesquitos.” During the Depression the Mesquitos dominated girl’s basketball, ultimately winning the state championship in 1933 and again in 1948.
Mesquite’s population boomed during the midcentury where The News speculated on Aug. 9, 1962 that the city would gain almost 15,000 new residents by 1965. To accommodate to this growth, a second high school, North Mesquite High, opened in 1969. Over the following four decades, three more high schools were built with the most recent, John Horn High School, opening in 2000.
In a state like Texas, high school football is a cherished event and the city of Mesquite won its first state championship in 2001.
As of 2018, Mesquite’s population is estimated to be just over 140,000 people. The city of Mesquite has also become increasingly diverse within the past few decades, as 40% of the population is estimated to be Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Organizations such as the Hispanic Forum of Mesquite Inc. advocate for building trust and communication between the Hispanic community and the city of Mesquite.
Efforts to revitalize the city are also underway to draw new visitors. Downtown Mesquite was once an attraction for visitors but retailers began to see a decline during the 1980s. The Mesquite City Council is attempting to combat this when they announced plans for redevelopment in 2016. Since then, the city has unveiled a new logo and introduced a community-wide development plan to redesign infrastructure and improve aesthetic.
Additionally, some Mesquiters also work diligently to maintain the history of their city. Historic Mesquite Inc. is a nonprofit organization focused on historical preservation of structures and property designations. Mesquite’s Opal Lawrence Historical Park is one such site that receives care that recognizes the impact of the past.
From a train depot to a diverse suburb, Mesquite demonstrates how the history of a city can continue to live into the present.